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Celtics steps away from banner 18

Jimmy Myers
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Jrue Holiday gestures towards Macvericks guard Luka Dončić. PHOTO: Boston Celtics/NBA

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Following convincing victories in the first two games of this year’s National Basketball Association’s best of seven Championship Finals, the Boston Celtics find themselves just two wins away from raising title banner number 18 to the rafters of the TD Bank Garden. As fans of the team are thinking of a four-game sweep, they should be reminded of the fact that there has been only nine NBA Finals sweeps in the history of the league.

And while contemplating that thought, consider that games three and four of this current NBA Championship series will be in Dallas, one can expect a stronger effort from the Mavericks than they exhibited in games one and two in Boston.

The breakdown of game one went this way:

The Celtics jumped on the Mavericks from the opening tap, spurted to an early lead behind the hot-shooting of Kristaps Porzingis, who came off the bench following a five-week absence due to a calf injury, to score 20 points — 18 in the first half, as the Celts built leads as high as 29 points.

But the main focus of the Celtics victory centered on the superior defense played on Mavericks stars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Jaylen Brown, with help from teammates Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, and strong backline support by Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Porzingis (three blocked shots), took the measure of the Doncic/Irving combo from the opening minutes and never let up.

The Mavericks pulled to within eight points in the second half before the Celtics ran off to a lopsided 107-89 triumph. Doncic, battling chest, knee, and ankle injuries, led the Mavs with 30 points while Irving (the former Celtic who was booed mercilessly every time he touched the ball) scored just 12 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the floor.  Jrue Holiday’s defense on Irving was a critical factor in his poor shooting night.  Irving, who came into the NBA Finals averaging over 20 points a game during the playoffs, scored just four points while being guarded by Holiday.

The Celtics’ defense led to several transition opportunities with Jalen Brown doing major damage.  Brown would lead the Celtics with 22 points, but it was his tough, physical play at both ends of the floor (which included three blocked shots) that drew raves from his teammates and Celts fans.  Buoyed by his outstanding performance in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals (in which he was named Most Valuable Player) Brown has kept his game at its highest level.  Some people say that he is still upset over not being named to either of the NBA’s three all-league squads.  He seems focused on making everyone in his path pay for the slight.  And in the process, he has helped take pressure off his teammate Jason Tatum, who has struggled with his shooting of late.  Tatum, a First Team All-NBA selection, struggled to score 16 points in game one.

Celtics guard Payton Pritchard celebrates after hitting 38-foot buzzer beater. PHOTO: Boston Celtics/NBA

Before the start of the NBA Finals, it was reported that Tatum and Brown, the teams’ two top scorers, discussed taking fewer shots to provide more scoring opportunities for their teammates. Game one showed positive results as the Celtics placed five in double figures (Brown-22, Porzingas-20, Tatum-16, White-15, and Holiday-12).

Going into this year’s playoffs, one of the major concerns of this Celtics squad centered on the thinking that its two-star players (Tatum and Brown) played at cross purposes far too often.  There was no sign of this (thus far) during this current playoff run.

Even Mavericks coach Jason Kidd’s assertion, and press conference statements, to the effect that “Brown is the best player on this Celtics team” (his words) failed to disrupt the positive chemistry between Brown, Tatum and their teammates.

Game two of this series started out very differently from game one.  The Mavs, behind an early 15-point explosion by Doncic, took an early lead before the Celtics found their rhythm.  The key moment of the first half came when Celtics backup point guard Payton Pritchard took an inbounds pass with 3.4 seconds to play before halftime, dribbled, and tossed in a 3-point shot (a heave) from the frontcourt. It was the first basket that Pritchard scored in this NBA Championship Series, and it gave his team a tremendous lift going into halftime.

The game was a see-saw battle during the early and middle stages of the third quarter before the Celtics hit the Mavericks with a scoring spurt to put distance between the two combatants. It was Jrue Holiday’s night to shine as he put on a show-stopping performance with 26 huge points and 11 rebounds, so many in critical moments when the game was hanging in the balance.  And while Jayson Tatum continues to have trouble with his shooting (6-for-16 in Game 1, 6-for-22 in game two) it was Holiday with help from Jaylen Brown, 21 points, Derrick White, 18 points, and others who pushed the Celtics to their 105-98 triumph. It must also be pointed out that Tatum dished out 12 assists in the contest, many to Holiday.

Luka Doncic led his team with 32 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.  But he committed eight turnovers and missed critical free-throws that could have made a difference.  He was not alone in his free-throw misery as the Mavericks team missed eight out of 24 free throws. Kyrie Irving failed once again to help his team, scoring just 16 points, far below his playoff average. Credit the Celtics team defensive effort with special mention to Holiday, Brown, and White for Irving’s poor shooting to date. Another point that needs to be expressed here is that the Celtics are now 12-0 against Kyrie Irving (and his teams) since he unceremoniously bolted from Boston — a point that the Celtics and Irving are aware of.

And while fans of the Celtics have thoughts of a series sweep dancing through their heads, I must point out (once again) the difficulty of achieving a four-game sweep in an NBA Championship Final series. Game three on the Mavericks home court should provide a true picture as to how this series will go.  If the Mavericks win, the series will stand at 2-games-to-1 with the emphasis shifting to game four.  If the Celtics win, recent history should make their fans reflect back to last season. Remember the disappointment felt when the Celtics rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit against the Miami Heat to force a game seven at the TD Bank Garden, only to be embarrassed 103-84 by the Heat.

So, my advice is to temper the excitement until the complete job of winning the NBA Championship banner is completed.

Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, NBA, NBA Championship Finals, Porzingis